SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO>> Hurricane Isaias snapped trees and knocked out power as it blew through the Bahamas today and headed toward the Florida coast, where officials said they were closing beaches, parks and coronavirus testing sites.
The hurricane is bearing down on places where the virus is surging, threatening to complicate efforts to contain it and piling another burden on communities already hard-hit by other storms and sickness.
Florida authorities said they have prepared shelters, but didn’t expect to have to evacuate people.
“The most important thing we want people to do now is remain vigilant,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Authorities in North Carolina ordered the evacuation of Ocracoke Island, which was slammed by last year’s Hurricane Dorian, starting Saturday evening. Meanwhile, officials in the Bahamas cleared people out of Abaco island who have been living in temporary structures since Dorian devastated the area, killing at least 70 people.
Isaias had maximum sustained winds of 80 miles per hour (130 kilometers per hours) at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, a slight decline from earlier in the day, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. The storm was expected to drop from 4 to 8 inches (10 to 20 centimeters) of rain in the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The center of the storm is expected to move over northern Andros Island in the next hours, on to Grand Bahama Island in the northwestern Bahamas later in the day then near the east coast of Florida overnight through Sunday. It is expected to weaken slowly late Monday.
Bahamian officials said they were concerned about a Category 1 storm hitting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The center of COVID-19 now is in Grand Bahama,” the island’s minister, Sen. Kwasi Thompson, told government-run ZNS Bahamas. “No one wanted to see a situation where we are now facing a hurricane.”
Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis relaxed a coronavirus lockdown as a result of the storm, but imposed a 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. He said supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations and hardware stores would be open as long as weather permitted.
The Bahamas has reported more than 570 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 14 deaths. It recently barred travelers from the U.S. following a surge in cases after it reopened to international tourism.
Paula Miller, Mercy Corps director for the Bahamas, told The Associated Press that people on the island were still standing in line for gas on Saturday ahead of the storm.
The area was still recovering from Dorian, complicating preparations for this one.
“People are doing the best they can to prepare, but a lot of businesses still have not fully repaired their roofs or their structures,” she said. “Even a lower level storm could really set them back.”
The storm has already been destructive in the Caribbean: On Thursday, while still a tropical storm, Isaias uprooted trees, destroyed crops and caused widespread flooding and small landslides in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. One man died in the Dominican Republic, where more than 5,000 people were evacuated, hundreds of homes were damaged or destroyed and more than 130 communities were cut off by floodwaters. In Puerto Rico, the National Guard rescued at least 35 people from floodwaters that swept away one woman who remained missing.
As it moves now toward the southeast coast of Florida, a hurricane warning is in effect from Boca Raton to the Volusia-Flagler county line, which lies about 150 miles (240 kilometers) north. A hurricane watch was in effect from Hallendale Beach to south of Boca Raton. A hurricane warning means that hurricane conditions are expected somewhere within the area, and a watch means they are possible.
Florida has been a coronavirus hot spot in the United States in recent weeks, and the storm is upending some efforts to control the virus. State-run testing sites are closing in areas where the storm might hit because the sites are outdoor tents, which could topple in high winds.
DeSantis, the governor, said Saturday that 12 counties have adopted states of emergency, although no immediate evacuation orders have been given. He also said that hospitals are not being evacuated of coronavirus or other patients.
The Republican governor told a morning news conference that the state is prepared with stockpiles of personal protective equipment, generators, bottled water and meals ready to be distributed.
The pandemic forced officials to wrestle with social-distancing rules at the same time as disaster response.
For example, in Marion County, Florida, officials say people would be provided facial coverings if they have to go to shelters. The facilities will have sanitizers and personal protective equipment if needed, although they would prefer people bring their own PPE.
Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez said each person in a shelter needed to have 40 square feet (nearly 4 square meters), and no more cafeteria-style dining would be allowed. Any evacuees infected with the new coronavirus would be isolated in classrooms separate them from the general population, Giménez said.
Kevin Shelton, the owner of Causeway Mowers in Indian Harbour Beach, Florida, said his store has been packed since Friday. Folks streamed in to buy generators, chain saws and other provisions. On Saturday morning, Shelton and his wife served at least 25 customers an hour, which is double the business they’d normally do on a weekend.
“They’re not saying much about Covid, they’re just making sure they have the proper supplies,” he said. “We’ve been in the area almost 50 years. We keep an eye on every storm. Every time we have a storm we take it seriously. It could shift in this direction at any moment.”